While there are around 25,000 bee species, there are four commonly encountered types:
- honey bees,
- bumble bees,
- carpenter bees,
- sweat bees.
All of them pollinate plants, making them incredibly important to their environments and our food supply. There are fewer than 10 species of honey bees (Apis spp.), over 250 species of bumble bees (Bombus spp.), over 400 species of carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.), and more than 4,000 species of sweat bees (Family Halictidae). While it may at first be difficult to identify what kind of bee you’re dealing with (some seem very similar at first glance), there are several physical and behavioral features that distinguish them. Here, we’ll cover the differences between these types of bees so you can identify a sweat bee and tell the differences between carpenter bee vs honey bee, carpenter bee vs bumble bee, and bumblebee vs honey bee. If you’re wondering whether you’ve encountered a bee or a wasp, check out our article The Difference Between Wasps and Bees.
Honey bees are small (around ½ inch long), slim bees with a smooth appearance. They are banded in golden yellow and brown. The much-feared Africanized honey bee is smaller, but otherwise looks very similar.
Bumble bees are generally about twice as large as honey bees and can reach lengths of up to 1 ¼ inches. They are round, fuzzy bees with black and yellow banding.
Carpenter bees can be confused with bumble bees due to their size and round shape. However, they have smooth, shiny, black abdomens.
Sweat bees are smaller than most other bees and typically metallic green, blue, red, or yellow (though there is variety in size and color). Both honey bees and bumble bees have a small structure on their hind legs called a pollen basket, or corbicula, that neither carpenter bees nor sweat bees possess.
The strongest differences between these bees are not in physical appearance and structure.
Honey bees and bumble bees are social bees, which means that they live in colonies of many individuals. A honey bee colony consists of a single queen, tens of thousands of worker bees, and several hundred males, called drones. Bumble bees also use wax as a building material. They construct nests of individual cells also in cavities, but usually underground.
Carpenter bees are solitary bees that nest alone. Carpenter bees tunnel into wood to lay their eggs. For this reason, they are often called “wood bees” and are considered a pest due to the structural damage they can cause.
Most sweat bee species are solitary while others are social. Sweat bees, like bumble bees, are typically ground-nesting bees. Like carpenter bees, they create tunnels in which to lay their eggs.
Honey bees live in hives of tens of thousands of individuals while bumble bee nests only number in the hundreds. Social sweat bees also have smaller colonies than honey bees. Honey bees build their hives out of wax in aboveground cavities.
Social bees are more aggressive than solitary bees because they have an entire colony to defend and the sterile workers can risk attacking without the added risk of lost reproductive capacity.
One very specific honey bee behavior not shared by other bees is the waggle dance. Honey bees use this dance to communicate with other colony members. Honey bees also differ from other bees in their practice of making honey.
To produce honey, honey bees pass nectar to one another repeatedly, with each bee removing more moisture from the nectar until they are left with a substance that has about half the moisture content of nectar.
While bumble bees store nectar in their nests, they do not make honey. Carpenter bees feed on nectar but don’t store it, while sweat bees provision their young with both nectar and pollen.
Honey bees live in perennial hives, producing new queens only when the hive reaches its carrying capacity. How do bees survive the winter? As winter sets in and the ambient temperature drops below 57oF (13.9oC), the entire colony huddles together inside the hive, shivering to keep warm. They feed on the surplus of honey that they made during the spring and summer. When spring begins again, they emerge and start feeding on nectar and pollen and provisioning the new eggs the queen lays. A honey bee queen can live for up to four years.
Unlike honey bees, in winter the bumble bee queen is only one to survive.
So, where do bumble bees go in the winter?
Most of them die. As the temperature begins to decrease, the current queen produces male bees and future queens, which leave the nest to find a mate.
Fertilized females then burrow into the ground or hunker down beneath leaf litter to hibernate through the winter. When temperatures start to rise (around February), these new queens emerge from hibernation, find a suitable location, and start a nest. They provision the first batch of eggs with pollen and nectar. These eggs hatch into workers, who then take over the task of provisioning the next generation, enlarging the nest, and standing guard over the colony.
All carpenter bee females are fertile. Both male and female adults hibernate through the winter, usually in existing burrows, then emerge in the spring to find a mate. Fertilized females then either find some suitable wood to bore into or colonize an existing set of tunnels where she can lay her eggs. She lays an egg at the end of the tunnel, provisions it with pollen, then seals the area with a ball of chewed-up wood. She then lays another egg outside the first cell and continues the process until she has about five or six provisioned cells. The next generation emerges after several weeks to forage and find a location to hibernate.
Sweat bees dig tunnels underground but have a different life cycle to that of carpenter bees. Instead of laying eggs at the beginning of the spring, they lay their eggs at the end of the summer. They provision each cell with both nectar and pollen. The next generation overwinters as larvae or pupae and emerges as adults in the spring.
Only female bees can sting because the stinger is a modified ovipositor, or egg-laying organ. While all bee stings hurt and can be life-threatening for those with allergies, there are some differences in stings between types of bees. Honey bees can only sting once. They have barbed stingers that become lodged in the victim’s skin, ripping the venom sac, digestive tract, muscles, and nerves from the bee’s abdomen as she tries to fly away. This massive injury kills the bee.
Bumble bees, carpenter bees, and sweat bees can all sting repeatedly. Sweat bee stings are considered mild in comparison with the stings of other bees.
The similarities between the most common types of bees may make identification seem daunting. However, they do have distinguishing physical and behavioral features. We hope this article helps you both identify different types of bees and understand more about bees in general. When you come across them, remember how crucial they are to plants and the animals that feed on them, including us.